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The Problem of Anxiety by Dr. Tim Keller

23 May

praying man on one knee image

Series: Modern Problems; Ancient Solutions

October 24, 1993, Manhattan, N.Y. Based on Psalm 27

“The Problem of Anxiety” by Tim Keller

We’ve been looking at the book of Psalms in the fall, and we’ve been trying to bring them to bear on what we’ve been calling “modern problems,” which, of course, if you can bring the Psalms (a 3,000-year-old book) to bear on them, they’re not that modern, but we always like to flatter ourselves that our problems are worse than anyone else’s. I mean, every age has always felt that way. So I’m pandering to our arrogance and suggesting we do have modern problems (yet which have solutions) that are very ancient. Now let me read to you Psalm 27 in its entirety.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident. One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord. Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me. My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior. 10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. 11 Teach me your way, O Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. 12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence. 13 I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heartand wait for the Lord.

That’s God’s Word

Now this psalm is all about fear, worry, anxiety, and how the Bible tells us to deal with it. Now when we look at the psalm, we’re going to see a very refreshing realism, even though it’s full of tremendous promises, because the realism is important. I was just reading an author, a man named Ernest Becker, who said, “I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise, it is false.”

He must have lived in New York. There’s always this rumble of panic. It’s really the subway, but you walk along and you feel this rumble of panic, and you say, “Why do I feel so disconcerted?” Then you realize you’re on Park Avenue, and there goes the subway. Ernest Becker is right, and here’s why.

So many of the articles and the books I survey (and I constantly do) … Whenever I see a book in a store or an article in a newspaper or a magazine saying, “How to Overcome Worry” or “How to Overcome Anxiety,” almost always what they essentially say is, “The things you’re worried about may never happen. What a waste of time it is to be worrying about things that may never happen. Instead, visualize a future that is satisfying and focus on that. Visualize that future. Focus on that. Don’t sit around and visualize all the things that could go wrong.”

Is that the way David does it? No. You know, for example, in verse 10, he says, “Though my father and mother forsake me …” Now there is no indication David’s mother and father had actually forsaken him. It says, “Though an entire army was encamped against me …” He doesn’t say, “It has encamped against me …” It says, “Even if it did …” What is David doing? He is doing the opposite of what the articles say. He is actually imagining the worst things that can happen. He is visualizing the worst things that can happen. Why? Because he wants to have a strategy of life, a strategy of dealing with fears and anxieties, that can stand up to anything.

He doesn’t listen to the advice that says, “Maybe none of these things will ever happen, so don’t think about them.” Oh no. As Ernest Becker says, any attitude toward life that minimizes the evil and terror of things is phony. Well, he would have been very happy with Psalm 27. David goes so far as to imagine the worst. The fierce realism of the Bible is seen right here. The Bible says you can have a way of dealing with anger and with anxiety and fear that assumes the worst things may and can happen, that your father and mother forsake you, that an army encamps against you. Think about it! Go ahead. It doesn’t matter, because you can use this on anything.

So what is that strategy? I’ll tell you, whatever it was, we ought to look at it because David had literal enemies, and they had real weapons. They were people who were literally after their lives. Most of you, that’s probably not true. Therefore, if he was able to find a strategy that enabled him to deal with the fears of his life, don’t you think it ought to work for most of us? So let’s see what he says this great strategy is. Actually, it’s all in verse 4.

In verse 3, he says, “I have so much freedom from anxiety and fear that I have enough left over that if an army came up, I’d be okay. I’d be able to handle it.” That’s what he says in verse 3. Then in verse 4 he tells us the secret. There are three verbs: to dwell, to gaze, and to seek. Those are the three. So let’s take a look. How can you have a strategy that will enable you to face any of the anxieties, the stresses of life? I don’t know how you’re doing right now with this, but I know you can improve. Take a look.

1. Dwelling

In verse 4, he says, “One thing I ask of the Lord … that I may dwell in the house of the Lord …” Now what does that mean? What does it mean to dwell in the house of the Lord? Now one of the things you have to think about is David is not thinking so much about a physical spot. First of all, he couldn’t dwell in the house of the Lord literally. You can’t live in a temple. He wasn’t asking for that. Only the Levites could live in there, and nobody could live right there in the Holy of Holies.

What he is actually asking for is to experience the unbroken presence of God, because the thing he is really after is the face of God. The face! “I want to gaze on your beauty. I want to be in your presence.” The house of God or the temple of God was the place where God’s paniym (which is the Hebrew word for face, his presence) dwelt. What David says is, “I want to be always in your presence.” What’s that mean?

Now people always ask this question at this point: “What does that mean? I thought God was present everywhere!” The answer is always best given through an illustration … something like this. You know, Tammy (who was playing the piano) and Steve (on the flute and the sax), you are in their presence, aren’t you? I mean, you’ve already heard them playing. You’re in their presence. Of course. You’ve listened to them and you’re in their presence, and yet nobody can say (yet) that you have met them unless after the service you walk on up and you come up face to face.

Because, you see, your face is the relational gate into your heart. From far away, you can’t have a relationship. You actually have to come up face to face. When you come up to somebody, you can’t look at their kneecap or their shoulder. You have to look in their face if you want to have a personal transaction, a personal interaction, because the face is the place where I see and hear you and the face is the place where you see and hear me. So you have to come face to face.

Now why am I saying that? Last week we said Psalm 19 says the heavens are telling of the glory of God. Psalm 19 says when you go out and see the stars, are you in God’s presence? Sure! The Bible insists you can’t know God personally through nature. It insists on it. Now we looked at that last week in some detail, but let me just put it out again this way. When you come into the presence of a pianist and you listen to her play, as great as it is to be in her presence, you haven’t had a friendship with her by that. You have to come up face to face.

If you want to have a friendship with Henry Ford, you don’t do it by putting your head under a Model T and saying, “Henry? Are you in there, Henry?” To be in the presence of the handiwork, to be in the general presence of someone, is not the same thing as to have a personal relationship. The Bible says, therefore, what David is after here is, “I don’t want to know you distantly. I don’t want to obey you in a general way. I don’t want to have a kind of general inspirational belief in you. I want to know you personally and intimately. That’s what I want.”

That’s the whole secret to a fearless life. Now why? Why? Why does verse 4 answer and explain verse 3? Why would verse 4 be the answer to fear? Here it is. When David says, “The one thing I want is to dwell in your house and gaze on your beauty and seek you in your temple,” that’s the secret right there. Let me put it this way, and then we’ll unpack it. What David is saying is, “My fears are directly proportional to the vulnerability of the things that are my greatest joys. If the thing that is my greatest joy is God, I will live without fear. If my one thing … the thing I most want … is God, I am safe.”

You see, when David says, “I’ll be safe in your dwelling place …” You see it in verse 5. He says, “I’ll be safe in the tabernacle, the tent of God.” David is not thinking physically. He isn’t! He is not so stupid as to think that these people who are after him with their real knives and their real swords, if he runs into the tabernacle, somehow if they come in after him in an Indiana Jones style kind of scene, the ark of the covenant will zap all the bad guys. That’s not what he is thinking.

What he is saying is, “I’m only safe not when I’m physically inside the dwelling of the tabernacle or the temple. I’m only safe when you are the one thing I want most of all. Then I’m safe. Then I’m fearless.” Let me show you how that works. There’s a man over at Drew University named Thomas Oden. He is a great theological teacher, and he is an expert on the early church writers. It’s call patristics, meaning the church fathers. I was reading some of his work on Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine had an amazingly relevant (especially for us today looking at Psalm 27) and intriguing way to understand anxiety.

Augustine said, “Here’s where anxiety comes from. All of us have good things in our lives, and we love them, and we desire them. Good things! Parents and children are good things. A career is a good thing. Romance is a good thing. Sex is a good thing. All sorts of things are good things. We have lots of good things in our lives.” But Augustine says, “When something which is finite becomes …”

In other words, when the good things become the “one thing” we think we have to have in order to be happy, when the good things become the “one thing,” we gaze on them. We seek them. We gaze on their beauty. We adore them, and we believe we cannot receive life joyfully unless we have it. So when good things become “one things,” when good desires become inordinate desires, disproportional-to-their-being desires, Augustine says that’s when anxiety comes.

Why? Because anxiety is like the smoke, and you can follow the smoke down to the fire. The fire is this. Anxiety is always the result of the implosion or the collapse of a false god. “When good things become ‘one things,’ you see, when things that are good to have become things you have to have, when they become the central values of your life, that’s where anxiety comes from,” says Augustine, “because anxiety is always a sign of the collapse of a false god.”

Now let me tell you one of the reasons we squirm with this and one of the reasons some of you may squirm. Some of you may be eaten up with worry and anxiety right now, and you think this is unfair, because you’re worried about a person, or you’re worried about how you’re going to feed your family because of the finances. You’re worried about a lot of things, and they’re good things. See, this is what’s so hard. The things that turn into little idols in our lives are always good things. They were created by God. They’re wonderful. That’s the reason they can slip into the center.

Let me put it this way. A little anxiety is always a very good thing. Remember, there is a place where Paul says, “I have on me the daily anxiety of all the churches.” So a little anxiety shows you’re a caring person, but debilitating anxiety and devastating anxiety shows good things have become “one things.” Now you’re gazing on their beauty and you’re seeking them above all. You think, “Unless I have that, I cannot be happy.” That is what creates debilitating anxiety and fear.

So do you see what David is saying is, “If you’re my ‘one thing,’ if you’re the one thing I require, the one thing I ask for … to gaze on your beauty, to seek you in the temple … I’m fearless?” Because, see, anything but God and his will is subject to the vicissitudes of time and life. Anything but God and his will is vulnerable. Nothing can take God away from you. Nothing can take that away from you. Now you’re fearless. But anything else you set your heart on like this can be taken away. When there’s a threat to it, you go to pieces.

Now David gives us a great example of this. Let’s just use one example. “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” Now is there anything wrong with the love between parents and children? Of course not! God invented love between parents and children. God commands love between parents and children. Therefore, for you to want, for example, the love of your parents is something good. For you to want it very deeply is something good. Not only is it something very good; it’s something inevitable that you want it.

Yet what happens if your mother and father forsake you, which of course happens, does it not? What happens? There are people who I’ve talked to, who you’ve talked to (and maybe some of you are), who say, “My mother and father have forsaken me, and I will not be consoled. I will not! I will never forget what they did. I will never forget what they failed to do. I will never be okay. I will always feel worthless. I will always be unhappy!” You just refuse to be consoled. What is that? A good thing (parent love) has become the “one thing,” and you’re gazing at its beauty, and you’re longing for it, and you’re seeking after it. You’re worshiping it in the temple.

As a result, you will be anxious and fearful all of your life. Don’t you see? “If my father and mother forsake me, if my spouse forsakes me, if my career forsakes me, if romance forsakes me, if my looks forsake me, the Lord will receive me. The Lord will receive me!” Unless you get that into your blood, unless you understand the reason we get anxious is because good things become “one things,” and they slide into the center, unless we actually are …

You know, Augustine said anxiety is a very, very helpful thing. It tells you a lot about yourself, because you can always follow your worries to those things which enslave you. You can always follow your worries. Anxiety is always the result of the collapse of a false god, the implosion. Do you understand that? Unless you’re able to get this into your blood you’re going to live a fearful life.

So the question then is … How do we make sure God becomes our “one thing?” How do we do that? I would say the text is actually telling us two ways. The two ways are right there in verse 4. You see, when David says, “There’s only one thing I want,” and then he says, “… to dwell, to gaze, and to seek,” now wait a minute; that’s three things. So what does he mean? He has to mean dwelling and gazing and seeking are basically all the “one thing.” In fact, I think seeking and gazing are actually two ways we dwell in the house. I think seeking and gazing is just a kind of breakdown of what it means to dwell in God’s house.

Do you want to live in his presence? Do you want him to be the “one thing?” Do you want that so you can live a fearless life? The question is … How? You have to gaze on his beauty, and you have to seek him in his temple. Now the reason I think that’s true, by the way, that these two things are the ways in which you dwell in the house (gazing on his beauty and seeking him in the temple) is because the rest of the psalm breaks into two parts.

Starting in verse 8, he says, “Show me your face.” Verses 8 through 10: “Show me your face.” Then verses 11–14 are, “Teach me your way.” Those are the same two things! “Show me your face” is the same thing as gazing on his beauty. “Teach me your way” is the same thing as seeking him. Let me show you these two things. These are the two things you have to do in order to make him your “one thing.”

2. Gazing

First of all, you have to gaze on his beauty. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll just tip my hat to those of you who were here at the end of August because I gave a sermon once on this at the end of August in the evening. When David says, “I’ve come to the temple to gaze on your beauty,” do we think it means a literal vision, something he saw with his physical eyes? I doubt it. Well, I’m not saying David, being a prophet and being a great king and so on, could never have had a vision, but I doubt very much that’s what he is talking about. There’s no indication it means every time he goes in he gets a vision. Oh no!

What does it mean to gaze on his beauty? This is what we’ve called communion with God. This is the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. This is the difference between knowing he is holy and loving and experiencing his holiness and his love. Let me go back to Saint Augustine. Some of you might remember this from two months ago, the sermon in the evening.

Saint Augustine was a great African theologian of the church. He lived in the fourth and fifth century AD. Augustine actually lays out in one of his sets of writings what it really means to actually see God. He says there are three parts: retentio, contemplatio, and dilectio? Remember? Retentio, he says, is finding a truth, getting it out of the Bible. Retentio is the word for retain. You retain it. You distill the truth, and you say, “There it is.” You see it, and you learn it, and you know it.

Augustine stays, “Ah, but you don’t stop there. Oh no! You mustn’t stop there. Once you get that truth, you see God is holy, you see God is wise, you don’t just close your book. You don’t close your notebook and say, ‘Ah, now I know that! I know another attribute of God. I know it!’ Oh no! Now, secondly, you move from retenetio to contemplatio, which means you contemplate or you look at God through the truth. You gaze at God through the truth.”

That means you start to ask yourself questions. “What does this verse tell me about God? What does it show me about God? What does it show me about how marvelous he is, how holy he is, how loving he is? Do I really understand he is holy? Do I really understand it? Am I living it out? What false attitudes and false emotions come when I forget this?” What Augustine means is this is a discipline of the mind in which you’re reaching out and you’re actually saying, “I want to see you.” You stretch every nerve to not see him with the eyes of your eyes but to see him, as Paul says in Ephesians, with the eyes of your heart. You stretch out.

Because we have the Holy Spirit, sometimes to some degree or another, we move to the third of the three phases: dilectio, which means to delight in him. Sometimes we find if we really spend the time seeking to see him, to gaze on his beauty, ideas about him get very real. Ideas about his holiness or his love begin to comfort us, begin to disturb us, begin to thrill us. Now don’t look at me like, “What is all this?” Don’t you remember what Augustine said? Everybody does this with everything but God. We all gaze at the beauty of these good things that have become “one things.”

You know what it means to gaze on the beauty of something. You turn it over in your imagination, the thing you want. It may be a career. It may be a house at the beach. It may be a particular person, and you think what life will be like if you get it. You gaze on the beauty of it. See? You fill your mind with it. You taste it. You rest in it. We do it with everything else but God. Now do it with him! That’s the only way to make the real one thing the “one thing.” Gaze on his beauty. Do you know how to do that? Do you take time to do that? David says unless you do that, you’ll not be dwelling in his house and you’ll have a fearful life.

3. Seeking

He doesn’t just say, “I want to gaze on your beauty,” but, “I want to seek him.” Now the word seek is a very, very specific Hebrew word. It actually means to go and get counsel. So what it means is, “When I come to you, I am trying to find out what your will is, Oh Lord.” He wants to obey. He wants to find out God’s will, and he wants to submit to it.

Boy, this is extremely important. These are the two parts of what it really means to be a Christian. These are the two parts of true religion: gazing on the beauty and seeking God’s will. If you only seek God’s will to obey, to find out what he teaches and disobey it day in and day out, if that’s all you do without gazing on the beauty, it will be all phariseeism and legalism. On the other hand, if you just try to gaze on his beauty, just have this great experience, but you don’t want to find out his will and do daily obedience, well, it won’t work either, and I’ll show you why.

Just think of marriage. A good marriage is a wonderful thing because you can fall in each other’s arms every so often. You see, you gaze on each other’s beauty. You have intimate fellowship, but you can’t walk around all the time in each other’s arms. There’s a life to live. You have to go to work and so on.

Let me tell you what 95 percent of what marriage is: finding out how to serve the other person and how to do for them. Because if you want to experience the other person’s love and yet the other person says, “Hey, would you do this and this and this for me?” and you say, “Oh no. That’s too inconvenient. I don’t like to do that,” if you live like a selfish person, if you don’t learn what the other person’s wishes are, if you don’t serve that other person in the little things day in and day out, it will be the end of intimacy.

Don’t you see? You can’t just live selfishly. You can’t just walk around and do anything you want, not trying to find out how to serve that person, not making sacrifices for that person, not obeying the needs and the wishes of that person and then expect to just jump in bed and have a wonderful, wonderful time of gazing on her beauty or his beauty. If you think that’s going to work, it doesn’t! It never works!

A human being is not a computer. There’s not an entrance sequence that you just poke in and then you get everything you want. In a relationship if you want intimacy, if you want to gaze on the beauty of the other person, if you want to commune with that person in love, you also have to find out that person’s will and do it. That’s just the way it works! What does that mean? I’ll tell you what this means.

A lot of people have wanted desperately to gaze on God’s beauty and get these experiences I’m talking about. You know, I was reading the other day. Here’s a guy who wrote a friend near the end of his life. There was a minister who prayed every day but began to really get a breakthrough, began to gaze on God’s beauty. Almost every week he began to just have these breakthroughs.

He wrote a friend, and he said, “Almost every week, a measure of his great love comes down upon my heart. He has unlocked every compartment of my being and filled and flooded them all with the light of his radiant presence. The inner spot has been touched, and the flintiness of my heart has been melted in the presence of love divine, all love’s excelling.”

What is that? He is in the temple. He is dwelling in the house of the Lord. He is gazing on the beauty, and all of his fears are going. Somebody says, “Ah! I want that so much.” A lot of us go to church just seeking that. A lot of us try to find church that will give us this great sense of highness, that we’ve touched God during the worship services. That’s good. That’s fine, but I’ll tell you this. To gaze on his beauty without seeking his will will never work. You want to gaze on his beauty? There’s a way to do that.

Do you remember blind Bartimaeus? He knew Jesus was going to come by on a certain road, so he pitched his tent there. He just cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me!” Do you want to experience the beauty of God? Do you want to gaze on his beauty? Do you want to have the sense of love these great people I always am reading from their journals have? Do you want that? Of course you want that. Well, how do you get it? You don’t get it by running around trying to get it. You pitch your tent on the road Jesus inevitably will come down, and that road is the road of obedience, seeking him.

There are disciplines to seeking his will. You read the Bible. You pray. You meditate. You take the sacraments at church. Those are the inner disciplines. Then you have the outer disciplines. Be simple in your lifestyle instead of materialistic. Be chaste in your lifestyle instead of impure. Be forgiving in your lifestyle instead of bitter. Have a servant heart instead of an ambitious and selfish heart. These are disciplines. Obey, seek him, and you’ll gaze on his beauty. Otherwise, no.

Okay, you want to dwell in his house? There’s the discipline of gazing on his beauty, and there’s the discipline of seeking his will. Now let me close this way. Some of you are probably finding this a pretty odd thing (gazing on God’s beauty), and you’re thinking, “Well, that’s great. I’d love to have an experience like that. How do I do it?” Here’s how you do it. You have to seek him in his temple. You have to gaze on his beauty in his temple.

Ah, but what is his temple? It says in John 2, Jesus Christ looked at the temple, and he said to the religious leaders, “Tear this temple down, and I will build it up again in three days.” They all looked at him and said, “You’re crazy! It took 40 years to build this temple. You’re going to build it up in three days?” The text tells us he was referring to himself. Jesus is the temple. Now let me explain what I mean.

David gazed at the beauty of God. Now remember we said Augustine says the way you gaze on God is you take certain truths and you look at God through the truths. You look at God through them. So when we’re told David gazed on the beauty of God at the temple, what did that mean? We said he probably didn’t have a vision. It means he went and he watched the temple ritual, and he saw the beauty of God through it. How did that happen?

Well, like this. You know what happened in the temple ritual? Animals were constantly getting slaughtered on the block and sacrificed up to God. David saw the beauty of the Lord, he gazed on the beauty of the Lord, through the sacrifices. How could that happen? Well, when he saw the animals being slain, he saw the beauty of God’s justice and holiness. He said, “Here is a God who requires sin be paid for. Here is a God who is so good and so holy, he cannot count men’s sin. Here’s a God who can’t overlook it. Here’s a God who must deal with evil. What a good God. What a just God. What a holy God.”

On the other hand, when he looked at the sacrifices, he also saw a merciful God. “Here’s a God who wants to deal with our sins so we can still approach him. Here’s a God who wants to forgive us our sins. Here’s a God who wants to find us a way to himself.” Now here’s the point. If David was able to gaze at the beauty of God through the tabernacle and the temple worship, how much more of the beauty of God will we see if we gaze at God through the face of Jesus?

You see, when we look at God today, we don’t have to look at him through a bull being slaughtered on the block. We see the face of a human being, the most loving human being ever, dying for us, suffocating on the cross, his ribs snapping as he suffocates, the blood and the sweat flowing down on his face, looking at us and saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve been forsaken for you.”

Now let me tell you something. If David saw so much of the beauty of God in the temple, so much of the beauty of God that it turned him into a great heart so that he could handle an army, how much more of the beauty of God do you think you and I can see if we do what Paul said? What did Paul say? He says, “We are beholding with unveiled faces the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

That’s what we look at. Gaze on him. Look at him. Look at what he is doing. Look at him dying for you. Gaze on the beauty of God. If the beauty David saw could turn him into someone who could handle an army, what do you think it’s going to turn you into? How much more of the beauty of God can we see? How much more are we going to be able to look at God and say, “You’re my ‘one thing.’ I see your beauty. It fills me up so I’m afraid of nothing anymore. I have the only thing I need?”

This is what it means to seek him. You have to seek the Father. You have to gaze at his beauty through Jesus. It says in John 1:12, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God …” So if you want him, if you want all the things we’re talking about, it’s not an abstract thing. It’s not a technique. You have to go to God through Jesus. That’s how you gaze on his beauty.

Now, Christian friends, just think about this. There are a number of you who are saying, “Okay, this is very interesting. In fact, this is very moving. This is very powerful, but I’m scared right now about something that’s going to happen on Thursday. That’s four days away. What do I do till then?”

Listen. It’s true the Bible gives you this tremendous solution to anxiety. It says learn to gaze on his beauty and seek him in his temple. Eventually you develop a habit of the heart. You develop a whole orientation toward God. Of course that’s not something that happens really quickly. So the fact of the matter is I can’t give you something that really quickly will overcome all of your anxiety between now and Thursday. The books in the bookstores do. The magazines in the grocery store do.

They give you those little behavior modification grids, and they give you these little rational motive techniques on thought control. They teach you how to turn away from the negative thoughts and put on the positive thoughts. Let me tell you something. The Bible is giving you an antidote to anxiety too, but it’s not a patch. It’s not a Band-Aid. It’s regeneration. It’s a new heart, a new way of life, a new way of doing everything.

So I admit this is something that takes a long time to develop. This is not a quick fix, but you can start right now. You know, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” right? You know that cliché? Okay, let’s use it. Do you know what the first step is? Today you can say, “One thing. Finally, Lord God, I’m going to make you the ‘one thing.’ One thing. I’m going to make you my highest priority.

I today determine that gazing on your beauty and seeking you, I can no longer let other things crowd it out of my schedule. I can no longer let other things crowd it out of my energy. I can no longer let other things crowd it out of my creativity. Today you’re the ‘one thing.’ Finally I ditch all other competition. I ditch all other competing concerns. I ditch everything else. I insist on this. I will make time for it. I will do it.” That’s the first step, so do it.

Last of all, let me just give you a quick read of something. In a minute we’re going to sing the hymn that goes, “We rest on Thee, our shield and our defender.” Do you remember several years ago we had a woman here named Betty Elliot who was a missionary? She told us her husband, Jim Elliot, 40 years ago or so now, and six other missionaries decided they were going to go into the jungles of Ecuador and make contact with a very primitive tribe they were going to try to meet, try to live with, try to learn their language, try to give them a written version of their language, bring in literacy and give them a copy of the Bible in their own language.

They were going to do literacy work and Bible translation. They knew it was dangerous, so the night before they were to contact these Indians, they sat around a table, and they sang this hymn together.

We rest on Thee,

Our shield and our defender!

We go not forth alone against the foe;

Strong in Thy strength,

Safe in Thy keeping tender

We rest on Thee,

And in Thy name we go.

Strong in Thy strength,

Safe in Thy keeping tender,

We rest on Thee,

And in Thy name we go.

The next day they were all speared to death by the Indians. Do you remember that story? Elisabeth Elliot, a friend of ours, will say that’s interesting. “We rest on Thee,” they sang. “Strong in Thy strength and safe in Thy keeping.” The next day they were speared. So does it not work? “Of course it works,” she said. They also sang,

Jesus our righteousness,

Our sure foundation,

Our Prince of glory,

And our King of love.

You see, if the one thing that’s non-negotiable in your life, if the one thing you really want, if the one thing you really need, if the one thing is to gaze on the beauty of God, you’re absolutely safe, because the worst thing that could happen to you is a spear gets thrown through your heart (which is exactly what happened), in which case you gaze on the beauty of the Lord in a way you never have before.

Or there was an English missionary named Allen Gardiner. In 1851 he was on his way to South America to start a new mission, and he was shipwrecked on a very remote island. He and his companions tried their very best to stay alive until somebody came to find them, but nobody did. Finally he died, far away from everybody, far away from his loved ones, far away from his family, dying of thirst, dying of hunger. A horrible, horrible way to go.

When they finally discovered his body they found right next to his body was his quiet time notebook, his journal. They opened it up, and they saw on the very last page, he had written out Psalm 34:10. This is what it says: “The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” Right underneath it, the last words he penned were, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.”

Huh? What do you mean, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God?” Why wasn’t he mad? Why wasn’t he angry? Why wasn’t he scared? Because he had the “one thing,” and there was nothing to be afraid of. Don’t you see it’s your only hope? Come and get it. Dwell. Gaze. Seek. Let’s pray.

Father, now we pray everybody in this room might be enabled to say, “The one thing I want is to dwell in your house and gaze on your beauty and seek you in your temple.” Father, for some of us, that’s going to mean actually to get ourselves converted to say that. For a lot of the rest of us, it means we’re going to have to reshuffle our priorities around and realize we’re living like pagans. Many, many good things have become our “one things,” and we’re being just jerked around by them. I pray today you will enable, by the power of your Spirit, to let everybody in this room say, “One thing I ask. One thing only will I seek.” We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.[1]

 About the Author

Tim Keller seated image

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including The Reason for GodKing’s CrossCounterfeit GodsThe Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.


[1] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

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